The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold
The Lovely Bones is a 2002 novel by Alice Sebold. It is the story of a teenage girl who, after being raped and murdered, watches from her personal Heaven as her family and friends struggle to move on with their lives while she comes to terms with her own death. The novel received much critical praise and became an instant bestseller. A film adaptation, directed by Peter Jackson, who personally purchased the rights, was released in 2009.
Review by The New York Times
IT takes a certain audacity to write an uplifting book about the abduction and murder of a young girl. But consider that the bones of ”The Lovely Bones” belong not to the victim but to an abstract and quite positive idea — namely, that bones are the structure on which living things are built. Alice Sebold’s accomplished first novel takes the metaphor of ”bones,” tainted by overuse, shakes off the thriller trappings and turns not only this but many other clichés upside down.
It also takes a certain daring to write a book narrated by someone who’s dead. Not only dead but murdered, and not only murdered but murdered at the age of 14. Susie Salmon (”like the fish,” she tells us in the very first line) is in heaven. And, yes, she’s looking down — but with a fishy eye.
All is not well in the world Susie has left behind. Her grief-stricken mother has an inappropriate fling and flees to California. Her distraught father attacks her best friend, Clarissa, in the cornfield where Susie was murdered, inexplicably mistaking Clarissa for Mr. Harvey, the creep who lives nearby.
Mr. Salmon suspects — and we know — that Mr. Harvey is the murderer. But the police fail to solve the crime and Mr. Harvey leaves town, turning up here and there over the years, observed by Susie but, alas, rarely by the authorities. I won’t reveal whether he’s caught, but setting the novel in the early 1970’s does avoid the necessity of dealing with what one suspects would be a quick resolution in the age of DNA analysis.
Susie has a younger sister and a much younger brother, as well as a boyfriend, Ray Singh, with whom she is on the verge of a sweet first romance. She also has a strange friend named Ruth, who plays a greater role in Susie’s life after it’s over than during it. Susie will appear to each of them over the coming years. Her brother, Buckley, takes the sightings more or less in stride. ”Do you see her?” he asks a playmate not long after the murder. ”That’s my sister. . . . She was gone for a while, but now she’s back.” But Ruth’s sightings of Susie affect her increasingly deeply. As she grows up, acting as witness to crimes past becomes her obsession.
This is a high-wire act for a first novelist, and Alice Sebold maintains almost perfect balance. There are a couple of faltering moments: it seems implausible that Susie’s grieving father would implicitly encourage his surviving daughter to nose around in the murderer’s house looking for clues. And in a scene toward the conclusion of the book that strains credulity, Ruth does a kind of involuntary channeling that allows Susie one last moment with Ray. But Sebold catches herself in the nick of time, and the book ends on the same appealingly plain-spoken note that it opens with: ”I wish you all a long and happy life,” Susie says.
Why did Mr. Harvey kill Susie Salmon? Sebold, perhaps wisely, stays away from this tricky territory, though his mother’s early abandonment of him seems to be a contributing factor. Susie’s chilling description of the crime opens the novel. In brief, dispassionate sentences she tells us how Mr. Harvey lured her into his secret cellar under the cornfield, how she fought back, how ”hard-as-I-could was not hard enough.” ”I wept,” she writes. ”I began to leave my body; I began to inhabit the air and silence. I wept and struggled so I would not feel.” It’s a difficult first chapter, and a mesmerizing one.
Susie is our guide through the maze of grief and dysfunction that follows her brutal death. Her dispassionate, observant young voice and poignant 14-year-old view of life don’t change much. But she comes to understand things as she might have if she had grown up. Sebold’s book is about the mind of a young girl, the reactions of a family to tragedy, the flaws that become enormous rifts under the pressures of grief. And it’s about heaven.
On her way home from school on a snowy December day in 1973, 14-year-old Susie Salmon (“like the fish”) is lured into a makeshift underground den in a cornfield and brutally raped and murdered, the latest victim of a serial killer–the man she knew as her neighbor, Mr. Harvey.
Alice Sebold’s haunting and heartbreaking debut novel, The Lovely Bones, unfolds from heaven, where “life is a perpetual yesterday” and where Susie narrates and keeps watch over her grieving family and friends, as well as her brazen killer and the sad detective working on her case. As Sebold fashions it, everyone has his or her own version of heaven. Susie’s resembles the athletic fields and landscape of a suburban high school: a heaven of her “simplest dreams,” where “there were no teachers…. We never had to go inside except for art class…. The boys did not pinch our backsides or tell us we smelled; our textbooks were Seventeen and Glamour and Vogue.”
The Lovely Bones works as an odd yet affecting coming-of-age story. Susie struggles to accept her death while still clinging to the lost world of the living, following her family’s dramas over the years like an episode of My So-Called Afterlife. Her family disintegrates in their grief: her father becomes determined to find her killer, her mother withdraws, her little brother Buckley attempts to make sense of the new hole in his family, and her younger sister Lindsey moves through the milestone events of her teenage and young adult years with Susie riding spiritual shotgun. Random acts and missed opportunities run throughout the book–Susie recalls her sole kiss with a boy on Earth as “like an accident–a beautiful gasoline rainbow.” Though sentimental at times, The Lovely Bones is a moving exploration of loss and mourning that ultimately puts its faith in the living and that is made even more powerful by a cast of convincing characters. Sebold orchestrates a big finish, and though things tend to wrap up a little too well for everyone in the end, one can only imagine (or hope) that heaven is indeed a place filled with such happy endings. –Brad Thomas Parsons
From Publishers Weekly
Sebold’s first novel after her memoir, Lucky is a small but far from minor miracle. Sebold has taken a grim, media-exploited subject and fashioned from it a story that is both tragic and full of light and grace. The novel begins swiftly. In the second sentence, Sebold’s narrator, Susie Salmon, announces, “I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973.” Susie is taking a shortcut through a cornfield when a neighbor lures her to his hideaway. The description of the crime is chilling, but never vulgar, and Sebold maintains this delicate balance between homely and horrid as she depicts the progress of grief for Susie’s family and friends. She captures the odd alliances forged and the relationships ruined: the shattered father who buries his sadness trying to gather evidence, the mother who escapes “her ruined heart, in merciful adultery.” At the same time, Sebold brings to life an entire suburban community, from the mortician’s son to the handsome biker dropout who quietly helps investigate Susie’s murder. Much as this novel is about “the lovely bones” growing around Susie’s absence, it is also full of suspense and written in lithe, resilient prose that by itself delights. Sebold’s most dazzling stroke, among many bold ones, is to narrate the story from Susie’s heaven (a place where wishing is having), providing the warmth of a first-person narration and the freedom of an omniscient one. It might be this that gives Sebold’s novel its special flavor, for in Susie’s every observation and memory of the smell of skunk or the touch of spider webs is the reminder that life is sweet and funny and surprising.
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc.
About the Author
Alice Sebold is the bestselling author of “The Lovely Bones,” a novel, and “Lucky,” a memoir. Both are #1 New York Times bestsellers. Born in Madison, Wisconsin, Sebold grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia and attended Syracuse University, as well as the University of Houston and the University of California, Irvine. She now lives in California with her husband, the novelist Glen David Gold.